September 26, 2011

Now that I’ve built about 17 CBG’s I’ve decided to try my hand at a built-from scratch instrument. Inspired by Rand Moore’s work ( and his excellent write-up, I decided to go with a paddle box (Strumstick®) style. My design will vary from Rand’s in a few details, most notably I will be making the box and neck as separate pieces, to be joined at completion. I’m doing it this way so that if I should screw up and ruin something, I will only have to trash either the neck or the box, but (hopefully) not both. I was originally thinking of a making a bolt-on neck, but upon reflection that seems unnecessarily complicated. I am now thinking of routing some slots and joining the two with splines. Simple and strong. Also, this will be a full chromatically fretted 4-stringer.

I began with purchasing thin (1/16”) 3”x 24” wide cherry wood from a local hobby shop for the side pieces. I felt that this would bend easier without the need to steam or fabricate molds. Cutting the strip in half set the first measurement of 12” for the box length. This is actually a few inches longer than any of the cigar boxes I’ve used in the past and with a depth of 3”, I’m looking forward to more acoustic volume.

I then cut a piece of 1x2 maple 3” long to use as a neck block. To ease the bending a little, I chamfered the gluing edges 5° on my disc sander, also narrowing the block 1/8”, allowing for the thickness of the sides so the neck and heel can blend smoothly into the box.

I then glued and clamped the sides and set it aside. You can see the slight spread already built into the sides.

I then cut some 1x4 maple 8” long and angle cut the ends to 25°, then ripped it 3” wide for the tailstock. The scrap pieces will be using for bracing.

BTW – did I mention I will be building 4 at one time?

That’s all for this first installment. My next step will be shaping the tailstock and adding basswood bracing to the sides.


Progress as of 9/29/2011:


Four boxes in process of gluing sides to neck block.  Chamfering the blocks will make bending the sides easier.



I’m using cherry for two and walnut for the other two.  I’ve ordered some special stains to use and I will be applying the best finish I can.


Today I shaped the tailstocks:




This is what happens when your router kicks back on you:


Fortunately, I had cut another blank just in case.


I applied 1/32” cherry as a veneer to the two that have cherry sides:




The two that have walnut sides will have natural maple tailstocks.  I really like the graining in these two pieces.  I drilled a ½” hole in the center of each block for a combination jack/strap button.  While I think these boxes will have good acoustic volume, I will be putting a piezo under the bridges.



I have just two bar clamps, so here’s the first round of box glue-ups.


The excess will be trimmed and sanded for a nice flush joint line.


Next: Cutting the tops and bottoms.


Update: October 3, 2011


Added basswood strips to insides to strengthen and provide a wider gluing edge for the tops and bottoms:





Next I glued the first top, using a heavy toolbox to act as a clamp:



After the top dried, I routed the edges with a flush-trim bit, sanded, and drilled a 2” sound hole:




While I’m waiting for some parts, I started rough shaping the necks.  I cut blocks to make up the heels, cutting them at 45°, 30°, and 15° to start a curve:


After they dried, I evened up the edges, cutting a 2° angle based on measurements entered into a neck angle calculator at: .




I then rough cut my peg heads and began shaping them:



October 4, 2011


First real challenges run into today.  First, I am scrapping the original peghead design.  Not sure what I’ll do but have an idea in mind, just need to sketch it out and see if it’s feasible without buying a bandsaw.  Ditto on the tailpiece, but having a bandsaw sure would make life easier and open up some artistic avenues I’ve wanted to go down.


Second challenge was the wood for the soundboards.  I had begun to use 3/32” high-grade plywood, but didn’t really like the grain.  I went to my local hardwoods dealer, Constantine’s (, to find some 1/8” cherry and walnut, but all he had available now was 1/16”, with no more coming in until November.  I bought some cherry anyway, hoping it wouldn’t be too thin for the tops.  I cut and shaped two pieces and glued them to the box frames.  After they dried, I applied a poly finish to the insides.  After about an hour of drying time I checked on them, only to find they had warped terribly and had to come off.  I cut some new pieces, glued them on, then added a second thickness (turning the grain for strength) behind where the sound holes will be and some internal bracing. 





I am going to see about some 1/8” walnut for the other two boxes, but it will have to be edge glued together.  Maybe I’ll add a skunk stripe down the center of the one that will be natural finished.  The plywood I have is looking better and I will use it for the backs of the two cherry boxes and one of the walnut.

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Comment by Habanera Hal on July 8, 2012 at 5:30pm

LOL.  Good concept, poor execution.  Wound up with one semi-playable instrument and a stash of splinters from taking out my rage. 

frustration and giving up

Rand Moore has a much better handle on these than I ever will, however, I may try again if I ever run out of cigar boxes.  I have 114 boxes on my shelves right now, so it might be a while.........


Comment by wormil on July 8, 2012 at 11:14am

How did they turn out?

Comment by Habanera Hal on October 8, 2011 at 5:10pm

Hi Rand!

Thanks for the the comments. You may be envious of my workshop, but I covet your skills.  I can't seem to cut a square corner to save my life!

Building four at a time was a major undertaking, but I did it only because I felt it was easier to cut and machine all the various pieces at the same time and save from having to reset the table saw, router, drill press, et al over and over.  I actually feel like I'm building FIVE at a time as I have plenty of "extra" pieces left over from mistakes so far!

I have learned a few things already that I will implement on future builds of this type.  #1 - I will not use 1/16" wood for the top or bottom as sanding it for finishing makes it too weak, requiring more bracing underneath.  Ditto on the 3/32" plywood as the top veneer is too easy to cut through.  One-eighth inch solid (tone) wood is the way to go. #2 - I will machine the slot in the neck block before angling it or gluing it up to the side pieces, it will just be easier than making a jig to hold the entire box level and square on the router.

I'm working on shaping headstocks right now and will post an update in the next few days.  I'm just hoping these things turn out playable,

Take care!

Comment by Rand Moore on October 8, 2011 at 6:36am

Hi Hal.

Great build photos. Now I see I need one of those heavy metal toolboxes -- to put pressure on the sound or back board when gluing them on. Maybe I'll just go by one of the dozens of construction sites and steal a couple of heavy rocks or cast off cement blocks.

You seem to have a pretty well equipped wood-working shop. Makes me envious. Maybe I'll ask my building contractor friend if he can help me put together something of a real wood-working shop, preferably away from my home. Then we could maybe "share the rent". I know he sometimes needs a place to construct things like shelving and the like. He's taken me wood shopping in Bao An, so now I have like a 2 year supply of wood on hand. He thinks big when it comes to acquiring wood. Fortunately, Boa An wood suppliers are cheaper than B&Q and he insisted we get his builder's discount.

I'm sure that the depth of your boxes will really help produce a deeper, more guitar-like sound, especially if using say the center 3 strings of a set of 6 guitar strings. I have tried strings 3, 4, and 5 on my first paddle box, and decided I liked 2, 3, and 4 better because I can get a solid guitar string 3. Sometimes I fret string 2, so I prefer having a non-wound string for both the melody and the melody strings so you don't get all that "fingering noise" which is almost inevitable with would strings. It seems the best instrument I have built to date is my big paddle box stick dulcimer, as it has a pretty deep sound and plenty of sustain. It also seems to have a lot of what sounds like "complex resonance" and some "sympathetic resonance" of the bass and middle strings when playing om the melody string. I hope your instruments turn out as well -- or better! I have never tried to build identical instruments at the same time. Hope that works out well for you, too.

I haven't been able to do much building this week because of China's national holidays -- my daughter will be off school for 9 days and I can't do much work while she's around (she likes to get in the way and distract me too much). I am also having to "cool-off" after screwing up the neck of my mid-sized paddle box stick dulcimer. I am planning to try again from scratch. Now I like your idea of using a detachable neck. This could help me salvage the sound box, just cut off the current neck and bolt on a new one. I'll give that some more thought.



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